In Lent, a gift to seek is greater serenity. The word comes from the Latin serenus, meaning clear or unclouded (skies). By extension it thus means calm, without storm. Serenity has become more used in modern times with the advent of many 12-Step programs which use the serenity prayer as an important help to their work. Perhaps the closest Greek word to serenity is γαλήνη(galene) and it is used most specifically when Jesus stood in the boat, rebuked the storm and there was a great calm, a serenity (cf Matt 8:26). In this sense we can see how true serenity must come as a gift from God. For the storms of life can overwhelm and overpower us. So we need to seek serenity from God and receive it from him.
My own personal experience of serenity is that it is a calm and peaceful joy, an experience that everything is alright, everything is in God’s hands.
I would like to look at four sayings that are related to serenity. I am not exactly sure where I first got them. They were in a collection of old clippings I had from years ago. Recently I rediscovered them, along with other clippings. These sayings both describe serenity (often without using the word) and also describe its sources. Let’s look at them one by one, with a little commentary by yours truly. The sayings take the form of the stories of the desert Fathers but I am quite sure they are modern reflections put in the older form.
1. The disciples ask the master, “Are there ways for gauging one’s spiritual strength?” “Many,” said the master. “Give us one,” beseeched the disciples. And the master responded, “Find out how often you become disturbed in the course of a single day.”
For the normal Christian life is to be increasingly free from anger, anxiety and disturbance. This results from the increasing trust that faith begets. The closer our walk with God and our experience of his love for us, the more inconsequential is the hatred of the world, the insensitivity of others. We are increasingly untroubled that we are not praised or promoted, for God’s love is more and more enough for us, and is experienced as real. We are less obsessed with what others think of us. Our fears give way to a powerful experience of God’s loving providence and his capacity to make a way out of no way. Anger abates as we leave vengeance to God and are less prone to anger in the first place. This is because most anger is rooted in fear, and as fear gives way to trust, the cause of much of our anger is gone. Gratitude for the graces we have received makes jealousy and envy less possible. Disturbances diminish overall.
Yes, serenity is a true indicator of spiritual progress. The increasing lack of disturbances in our day is a sign of God’s work in our soul. Here is a gift to be sought.
2. Sometimes there would be a rush of noisy visitors and the silence of the monastery would be shattered. This would upset the disciples; not the Master, who seemed just as content with the noise as with the silence. To his protesting disciples he said one day, “Silence is not the absence of sound, but the absence of self.”
For it often happens that even when we go to pray, and there is physical silence, yet our minds are filled with many concerns. But the deepest prayer is to be caught up in God, to be gifted with contemplative silence. This silence is within and cannot easily be disrupted by the physical noises of the world; for it is a deep, inner, spiritual serenity that envelopes the soul. It is a peace that the world did not give, and world cannot take away. Here too is a gift to seek from God: a deep an inner serenity.
In the Beatitudes the Lord speaks of those who are “blessed.” And the Greek word of that text is makarios which refers to a deep, serene happiness, a calm joy. The secular Greeks used this word to describe the “happiness of the gods,” whose happiness was unaffected by worldly events. For us too, we must ultimately discover that happiness, serenity, is an inside job, and the true gift of serenity is not from the world, but from God. Thus it does not depend on external realities for its existence and can be experienced even in the midst of difficult “externals.”
3. To a disciple who was forever complaining about others the Master said, “If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers, than to carpet the whole of the earth.”
There is an old saying, “If I get better, others get better too.” The reform and transformation of the whole world begins with me. There is great serenity to be found in staying in our own lane and working our own issues.
Much anger is abated in a marriage when an aggrieved spouse says within, “My marriage is not perfect because I am in it.” Perfect marriages, perfect churches, perfect families, perfect workplaces do not exist because there are no perfect people to populate them. And the imperfection begins with me. There is serenity in realizing and accepting this.
Unrealistic expectations (e.g. that others should be perfect) are premeditated resentments. And resentments rob us of serenity.
It is true that we must engage in properly ordered fraternal correction. But fraternal correction has little impact without humility and the serenity that defuses the difficultly of the moment correction is administered.
I will only get what I sow. If I want respect, then I must show respect. If I want compassion and understanding, then I must show them. If I want others to be better, then I must first get better. Scripture says, Cast your bread on the water, it will come back to you after many days (Eccl 11:1).
4. “How can I be a great man like you?” “Why be a great man?” said the Master. “Being a man is a great enough achievement.”
For it often happens that we become imbued with unrealistic dreams for our self. It is not wrong to have dreams, but we must also come to accept that it is God who ultimately assigns us our place in his kingdom.
One of the great secrets of serenity is to gradually discover the man or woman God has created us to be. Simply becoming what we are and were made to be and respecting what God is doing, is a great source of serenity. God alone can give us this self knowledge of his plan for us.
Scripture says, LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap, so is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1-2)
There is a story about Rabbi Eliezer who said, I have often said to myself, “Eliezer, why are you not more like Moses? Moses was a great man!” But then it occurs to me that if I do that, God will one day say to me, “Eliezer, why were you not Eliezer?”
Yes, there is serenity in not trying to be others whom we think are greater. It is possible to imitate their virtues, which are common to us all. But as for our vocation and personal make-up, that belongs to God. God likes tall and short people, talkative and shy ones, skinny and fat ones, because he’s made a lot of them all.
Just a few thoughts on serenity. In the Scriptures Jesus brought serenity by calming the storm that night in the boat. But did you notice he slept right through most of it and had to be awakened by the frightened disciples that night? Who was right, Jesus to be calm or the disciples to be panicked? You decide. There ARE real problems in life that need attention. But an awful lot of our anxieties are about things that are better simply to sleep on. It is also a likely fact that we self-generate the majority of our storms in life. The gift of serenity comes as we gradually, by God’s grace, experience the self-inflicted storms abating. The four parables above offer insights into the internal dimensions of the gift of serenity.
Finally, most people have heard the Serenity Prayer. But the widely known part is only a part of slightly longer prayer. The Author of the prayer is disputed, but the full prayer is here:
- GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
- Courage to change the things I can,
- and the wisdom to know the difference.
- Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time;
- Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
- Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.
- Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;
- That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
This song says, When peace like a river attendeth by way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”